This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Agony Booth review: Good guy sidekicks from movies

This article looks at 5 of the best good guy sidekicks from movies.

Throughout history, both in real life and otherwise, there have always been those who seem to be, intentionally or not, subordinate to someone else. The slang expression that describes such a person is “sidekick”. In literature, such characters include Sancho Panza from Miguel de Cervantes’s classic novel Don Quixote, as well as Dr. John Watson from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. The advent of cinema naturally also produced sidekicks both good and bad. Here are five of the best good guy sidekicks the silver screen has given us over the decades.

1. Dr. John Watson

If there’s one sidekick that gets a lot of exposure, it’s the doctor who accompanies Sherlock Holmes on his cases. Watson not only serves as the everyman to Holmes’s brilliant intellect, he also narrates each of the stories in Conan Doyle’s Holmes canon. This allows readers and film audiences to experience the stories themselves with the same feeling of exhilaration that Watson is projecting as he narrates them to us. Sir Arthur, who was a doctor like Watson, supposedly based Watson on himself.

On the big screen, Watson has been played by numerous actors. Among the most memorable of these is Nigel Bruce, who was Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Holmes throughout the 1940s in numerous films released by Universal. Other actors who did the role justice include Patrick Macnee (opposite Sir Roger Moore’s Holmes in Sherlock Holmes in New York) and Andre Morell (opposite Peter Cushing’s Holmes in 1959’s The Hound of the Baskervilles).

Another rendition I especially liked was Sir Ben Kingsley’s Watson in the 1988 comedy Without a Clue. That film turns the Holmes universe on its ear by suggesting that Watson is the real genius when it comes to solving cases. Holmes himself (here played by Sir Michael Caine) is really a buffoonish, out of work actor whom, to Watson’s dismay, the public cheers as a hero.

2. Jiminy Cricket

Walt Disney made film history in 1937 with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. That film was the first-ever animated feature film and its great success naturally allowed Disney to make even more animated films over the next few decades.

The first such film was Pinocchio, based on the Carlo Collodi story of the same name and released three years after Snow White. Like that film, this story of a wooden boy who aspires to be worthy of the wish his creator/father made for him to become real was a huge hit (although not immediately; Pinocchio truly began bringing in the cash when it was re-released in 1945). Part of what makes the title character so memorable is his rapport with Jiminy Cricket, who, as he puts it, serves as his conscience (although that duty comes about because of how Jiminy is smitten with the Blue Fairy who gives Pinocchio life). The duo even sing “Always Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide” early in the film. Another song Jiminy sings, “When You Wish Upon a Star”, won the Best Original Song Oscar for that year.

While the seven dwarfs certainly give Snow White a hand, it’s Jiminy who truly set the standard for sidekicks in Disney movies. This could apply to some non-Disney movies as well, as there are many sidekicks who, just like Jiminy, end up ensuring that the hero’s heart is in the right place, and aren’t just someone for the hero to give lessons to. Heck, Steven Spielberg’s film AI: Artificial Intelligence makes numerous references to Pinocchio (and references to it can also be found in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Indeed, many subsequent Disney films, including Dumbo, Bambi, Cinderella, Peter Pan, The Lion King, and Cars owe the existence of their sidekicks to this little guy, who would re-appear in 1947’s Fun and Fancy Free and also go on to appear in a number of TV specials from Disney.

3. Chewbacca

Let’s face it, Han Solo’s co-pilot is the textbook definition of what a sidekick should be. This towering bear-like alien is devoted to Han but is never afraid to disagree with him if the circumstances call for it. The fact that Han is able to perfectly understand Chewbacca’s Wookiee language, even though all we hear are subtitle-less growls and roars, only adds to the the appeal this duo holds for many of us.

Throughout the three original Star Wars films, Chewie (as Han and friends call him) helps out the other heroes through various means, including getting Imperial guards out of the way by knocking them down, and even commandeering a Scout Walker in order to blast other Walkers and stormtroopers to bits. He can even fix machinery and carry a dismembered C-3PO on his back in the midst of all this.

So memorable was Chewie’s impact that there was a fan uproar when he was killed off in the Star Wars novel The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime, published in 1999. So it probably shouldn’t be surprising that when The Force Awakens hit theaters 16 years later, the events of that book and all the others which comprise the New Jedi Order series were ignored (hence, why Han dies and not Chewie).

While George Lucas created this character (inspired by his dog, Indiana), Peter Mayhew deserves credit for his amazing work while wearing what must’ve been a hot bear suit. But others who deserve credit for fleshing this character out are Stuart Freeborn, who designed the Chewbacca mask, and making it expressive so Mayhew could project emotion while playing the role, and Ben Burtt, who created the Wookiee language by splicing together the sounds of numerous animals, including bears, tigers, and walruses. Burtt’s work on this and other alien voices for Star Wars, such as Darth Vader’s breathing and the beeps for R2-D2, would earn him a special Academy Award.

4. Short Round

Before Lucas made the misguided decision to show us Darth Vader and Boba Fett in their elementary school years, he gave Indiana Jones a grade-school aged sidekick.

Happily, Short Round, played by Ke Huy Quan, isn’t as intolerable as the younger versions of the aforementioned Star Wars villains. One reason for this is because, while gutsy, Short Round is never overly anxious to get into a fight (à la Scrappy-Doo). Even though Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a larger than life adventure, the character reacts to events the way a real person (especially a real child his age) would. Short Round even gets Indy out of his drug-induced hypnosis, allowing them to escape the title temple. He’s also downright scared in some sequences, such as when he almost falls though a hole he makes on a super high bridge and nearly becomes a meal for the crocodiles in the river below. He even calls out Indy’s desperate attempt to defeat the bad guys by chopping apart the bridge holding all of them with, “He’s not nuts, he’s crazy!”

In contrast, Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace reacts to what’s going on around him with all the urgency of a child playing a video game. And don’t even get me started on his non-reaction when he’s in a spaceship with fighters shooting all around him (must be those damn midicholrians).

While some took issue with Temple of Doom‘s intensity, the film itself, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, is happily reminiscent of the 1930s and ’40s Republic serials from which it drew its inspiration. One reason for this is the nice scenes between Ford and Quan. One minute Short Round is quickly driving Indy through Shanghai to elude bad guys (who cares if he’s too young to drive a car?), and the next he’s playing a card game with him, which ends with both accusing each other of cheating. Hence, this is a hero-sidekick bond that has both humor and heart.

5. Samwise Gamgee

The hobbit who accompanies Frodo Baggins on his quest to destroy the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings trilogy becomes a part of that adventure in an amusing way. He eavesdrops on a conversation between Frodo and the wizard Gandalf. But the wizard uses this as a chance for Sam (as everyone calls him) to prove his devotion to Frodo.

Throughout the three films, Sam, a gardener for Frodo, is constantly pushing his friend through the difficulties they encounter. He even physically carries Frodo at several points in the story. His devotion to Frodo is such that he’s willing and able to return the ring after safeguarding it for him. This stands out as Frodo himself, like the ring’s previous keeper Gollum, is so drawn to it that he cannot bear to be without it for long.

But Sam’s selflessness helps ensure that the ring is destroyed, even though it’s really Gollum’s interference that directly leads to its destruction. The trilogy ends with Sam and Frodo returning to their home, the Shire, and Sam reuniting with his love Rosie.

The trilogy’s author, J.R.R. Tolkien, once wrote that Sam was really the main hero of the story. Below is a quote from a letter Tolkien wrote.

"My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself."

The three books which comprise the trilogy—The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King—were all published in the mid-1950s. Ironically, Tolkien would receive a letter from a man named Sam Gamgee in 1956 regarding the name he shared with Tolkien’s creation. The author replied with:

"Dear Mr. Gamgee,

It was very kind of you to write. You can imagine my astonishment when I saw your signature! I can only say, for your comfort, I hope, that the ‘Sam Gamgee’ of my story is a most heroic character, now widely beloved by many readers, even though his origins are rustic. So that perhaps you will not be displeased at the coincidence of the name of this imaginary character of supposedly many centuries ago being the same as yours."

These are just five examples of characters who actually made the term “second banana” sound good. In my next article, I’ll be going in the other direction, with the top 5 bad guy sidekicks from the movies.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Agony Booth review: Escape From New York (1981)

My third entry in the Agony Booth's Movies That Predicted Trump series looks at one of John Carpenter's best movies.
As the 1980s began, John Carpenter’s career was at its height. He won critical acclaim with Assault on Precinct 13. This gave him complete creative control over his follow up picture Halloween. The enormous success of that movie virtually re-invented the horror genre for the next decade. At the same time that film was in theaters, Carpenter was also scoring with the made-for-TV movies Elvis and Someone’s Watching Me.

All of this gave Carpenter enormous clout and led to the director getting a two-picture deal with Avco-Embassy Pictures. The first film made under this deal was The Fog, a ghost story that reunited many of the people Carpenter made Halloween with, including that movie’s star Jamie Lee Curtis. That movie became another success for Carpenter.

Happily, his next picture for Avco, released the same year as fellow classics For Your Eyes Only, The Great Muppet Caper, the underrated Dragonslayer, the werewolf one-two punch of The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, and the year’s box-office champ Raiders of the Lost Ark, also became a became a hit, and that picture was Escape From New York.

The film takes place in 1997 and begins with Curtis’s voice informing us that by 1988 the crime rate in the U.S. became so great that the government turned the Big Apple into one big maximum security prison. The island is surrounded by a 50-foot containment wall and any bridges and waterways leading to the island are now full of mines. The police keep watch on the island for any prisoners attempting to escape.

In addition to the increased crime rate that necessitated turning an entire city into a prison, the U.S. is at war with both the U.S.S.R. and China. Shortly after a scene where police violently stop an escape attempt, Air Force One is en route to a summit with leaders of those two countries, but is seen coming too close to New York.

As it turns out, Air Force One has been hijacked (irony alert: 1997 itself would give us a movie with the same plot) and the hijacker (Nancy Stephens) at the controls informs the authorities on the ground with dialogue that convinces me this is be an ideal entry in our Movies that Predicted Trump series:

"Tell this to the workers when they ask where their leader went. We, the soldiers of the National Liberation Front of America, in the name of the workers and all the oppressed of this imperialist country, have struck a fatal blow to the fascist police state. What better revolutionary example than to let their president perish in the inhuman dungeon of his own imperialist prison?"

The President himself (Donald Pleasence) is led to the jet’s escape pod, with his briefcase and a bracelet designed to track his movements. He escapes in his pod just before Air Force Once crashes into Manhattan.

The police, led by commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) go in to retrieve the President. But they’re met by a thug named Romero (Frank Doubleday) who informs them to get the hell out and that the President will be killed if they attempt another rescue.

Back at headquarters, Hauk, after discussing matters with the Secretary of State (Charles Cyphers) decides that the best way to solve this crisis is to enlist the aid of a recently arrived prisoner. Said prisoner is S.D. “Snake” Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former Special Forces Lieutenant and the youngest man to be decorated by the President, before being imprisoned for attempting to rob a Federal Reserve in Denver.

Both Plissken and Hauk engage in banter which serves to remind us why Russell and Van Cleef are so awesome. Hauk explains the situation, and says that Plissken is the ideal choice because of how he expertly flew into Leningrad in a stealth glider. He offers Plissken a full pardon if he goes into the death trap that was New York City and retrieves the President.

Plissken, repeatedly asking Hauk to call him Snake, says he doesn’t give a shit, even when Hauk informs him that the President was carrying a cassette tape containing vital information for the summit the Chief Executive was heading to. But Hauk soon ensures his cooperation after he injects Plissken with miniature explosives that are set to detonate at the end of the 24 hours Plissken has to complete the task. Plissken, the bad-ass he is, tells Hauk that he’ll kill him when he returns.

Our hero is next seen flying to Manhattan on a stealth glider where he lands on top of the World Trade Center. As he makes his way down to the city itself, we see many shadows darting in and out, along with the wreckage of Air Force One. Plissken also encounters a girl (Season Hubley), but before he can ask her anything, they’re ambushed by thugs. The girl is killed before Plissken can make his escape.

Plissken tracks the President’s bracelet signal to a theater, where he encounters a cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), as well as the bracelet now being worn by a drunk. Our hero tells Hauk that the President must be dead, but Hauk tells him to keep his ass in New York and keep looking.

The cabbie, who recognizes Plissken from stories of his exploits, agrees to take him to see Harold “Brain” Hellman (Harry Dean Stanton), who has the ear of the Duke of New York (Issac Hayes), the top crime lord in the city.

Brain and his girlfriend Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) tell Plissken that the Duke plans to bring all the gangs in the city together. This plan involves using the President as leverage and a map that Brain has of where the landmines are on Queensboro Bridge.

Plissken, Brain, Maggie, and the cabbie locate the Duke’s hideout: Grand Central Station. After finding the President, Plissken is captured, getting a knife in his leg in the process.

With his time running out, Plissken, now with a limp, soon finds himself in a boxing ring fighting a muscleman. Plissken kills his opponent while Brain and Maggie kill Romero and free the President. They rejoin Plissken and head for the World Trade Center with the Duke’s men on their trail. But Plissken’s glider is destroyed, forcing our heroes back onto the street. Fortunately, the Cabbie arrives with (what else?) his cab to take them across the bridge. The cabbie also produces the President’s cassette tape, having retrieved it from Romero earlier. Snake keeps it as they flee.

Our heroes navigate the mine-laden bridge but their cab hits one, blowing the vehicle in half and killing the cabbie. Brain soon joins him after stepping on another mine after he and the rest of the party proceed on foot. Maggie insists on staying with him as Plissken and the President continue on. She stands in the middle of the road, shooting the approaching car of the Duke until he runs her down.

Plissken and the President reach the perimeter wall. Hauk, with a big-ass walkie talkie that was state of the art for 1981, has men waiting for them. The President is raised on a rope thanks to the guards. The Duke arrives, taking shots at the wall, killing several guards and causing Plissken to take cover. But the President shoots enough bullets into the Duke to kill him before Plissken is retrieved.

On the other side of the wall, Hauk insists that Plissken produce the tape, which he does before the explosives are deactivated, with seconds to spare (of course, with a film like this, would there be any more spare time?)

Later, the President is preparing to speak on television. A pardoned Plissken asks him how he feels about those who died to ensure his ass would get out of New York. But the President barely pays them lip service (remind you of someone?).

Plissken is pissed but that doesn’t stop Hauk from congratulating him on his work and offering him a job, saying, “We’d make a great team, Snake!”

Plissken’s response? “Call me Plissken!”

The President goes live, offering his apologies for not being able to attend the summit, but saying that the cassette he’s about to play will hopefully help the U.S., China, and the U.S.S.R. live in peace. Alas, the tape instead plays a swing number from the cabbie’s private collection.

The movie ends with Plissken walking off, destroying the summit cassette.

Carpenter originally wrote Escape years earlier and basically kept it in a drawer until Halloween’s great success and the subsequent deal with Avco gave him the clout he needed to dust it off.

The film itself, like the aforementioned Raiders, became a smash which introduced audiences to a new hero who would get a sequel in Escape from L.A., which reunited both Russell and Carpenter (who previously did Elvis together, and would also work on The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China together). In addition to its great cast, Escape from New York has nice, appropriately seedy production values. This is especially amazing considering that not one frame of the movie was shot in New York, but rather St. Louis, Missouri.

I’ve read some reviews which state that the movie ends on a downbeat note, as Plissken destroyed a cassette with information that could have saved the world. But I honestly think that, while the Chinese and Soviets were not expecting to hear the music being played at the end, they would appreciate nice music as much as the next person. Hauk may agree with me, as neither he nor any of his men are seen detaining Plissken as he limps (not runs) away while destroying the tape at the film’s end.

The hijacker’s claims and the President’s indifference at the end are possibly the biggest indications as to how the film predicted Trump. There’s also a wall that surrounds the Big Apple, which now reminds me of a similar planned wall on the Mexican border that Trump would love nothing better than to waste our tax money on.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Agony Booth review: Trekkies vs. The People vs. George Lucas

This article looks at documentaries that focus on the followings to science fiction's two biggest franchises.

It goes without saying that Star Trek and Star Wars are the two biggest science fiction franchises ever. Even non-science fiction fans can recognize elements from either franchise, such as “beaming” or “the Force”. So it’s not surprising that numerous books and essays have cropped up over the decades which attempt to explain why these two franchises have such passionate followings.

Trekkies (1997)

While there are several books about the topic, perhaps the first such documentary on Star Trek fandom was the 1997 film Trekkies. This film was produced and hosted by Denise Crosby, who played Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The film largely consists of Trek fans from all walks of life discussing their love for the franchise. We see fans dressed as Klingons ordering food at restaurants. The cashier even tells Crosby that he often serves Klingons. Other fans discuss the technology seen in the Trek shows and how it may not be too far from reality. One such fan even attempts to build a chair similar to the one the crippled Captain Pike occupies in the original Star Trek two-parter “The Menagerie”.

It also has appearances from several of the actors and actresses from the various Trek shows, save Enterprise (the debut of which was still four years away). The actors relate stories of their encounters with Trekkies. For instance, Kate Mulgrew, who played Captain Janeway on Voyager, states that people have come to her asking her to marry them.

Yes, the film also addresses the famous “Kirk vs. Picard” debate. Chase Masterson, who played Leeta on Deep Space Nine, chimes in to say that both Kirk and Janeway are studs.

There’s one touching moment where James Doohan, who played Scotty on the original series, talks about a female fan who wrote to him expressing her suicidal thoughts. But he asked her to come to upcoming conventions where he would make appearances. She did so, and some years later, she contacted Doohan again thanking him for his support and gave him the news that she was getting her master’s degree.

One famous Trekkie the film looks at is Barbara Adams, the woman who famously dressed in Starfleet garb during her time as a grand juror in the Whitewater investigation. Adams was later dismissed from the jury, not for her attire, but for disobeying the judge’s order to not give interviews.

Crosby herself takes time to address her own thoughts on the franchise. At one point, she produces fan-made drawings of various Trek characters, including Yar and her half-Romulan daughter Sela (also played by Crosby). Of all the TV actors who have quit their shows, Crosby is the only one I know of who managed to get her best roles on her show after her character was killed off. Crosby even addresses this wonderful irony in the film.

A life-long Trekkie herself, Crosby suggested the idea of the film to director Roger Nygard, who had just directed her in the 1991 TV movie High Strung. He agreed, and filming began at a convention at a Hilton in Los Angeles that was organized by William Campbell, who played Trelane in the original show’s “The Squire of Gothos” and Koloth in “The Trouble With Tribbles” and Deep Space Nine‘s “Blood Oath”.

Trekkies received positive reviews and even spawned a sequel, Trekkies 2, which was released in 2004. The sequel mainly looks at Trek fans outside the United States and even profiles fans from the first film, including Adams. Trekkies itself was given a theatrical release in May 1999. Ironically, the film was released the same weekend as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. And speaking of which…

The People vs. George Lucas (2010)

Like Trekkies, this film looks at Star Wars fans and their extreme devotion to the franchise. There’s no specific host in the film, but there are discussions with numerous people linked with the films, including Gary Kurtz, who produced the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, as well as David Prowse, who wore the awesome Darth Vader suit in the original trilogy.

This film also goes into great depth about Star Wars creator George Lucas. Specifically, it goes into how he first inspired the love of millions of people before many of those people became disenchanted with him decades later because of his decisions in how to handle the franchise.

Indeed, a great deal of this documentary centers on how Star Wars is a creation of Lucas’s, but—some argue—also a pop culture juggernaut that belongs to the world.

The film even takes a brief look at Lucas’s other cash cow, the Indiana Jones series. Specifically, it goes into how fans became just as dissatisfied with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and its “nuke the fridge” scene as they had been with the Star Wars prequels (yes, there is a clip of that insufferable South Park episode to drive the point home even more). At one point, film critic Rafik Djoumi talks about how fan dissatisfaction with that film was directed even more at Lucas than its actual director, Steven Spielberg.

Another factor adding fuel to that fire is Lucas’s refusal to allow the original cuts of the first three Star Wars films to be released on Blu-ray. We see fans reacting to his insistence that the revised versions are the only ones in existence by reproducing the original versions on their own.

But the film’s director, Star Wars fan Alexandre Philippe, insisted that the movie isn’t meant to be an anti-Lucas diatribe (although one gets that impression from the title). To his credit, the film does showcase fans who actually love the prequels and even Jar Jar Binks. Philippe also goes into a fair amount of detail about how Lucas began his filmmaking career with his unique works THX-1138 and American Graffiti, and how those two films culminated into the great achievement that was the original Star Wars.

One of the fans interviewed is Jason Nicholl, creator of the blog The film is dedicated to him, as he died prior to its release. A sequel is reportedly in the works, and will focus on the franchise since Lucas sold it to Disney in 2012.

Both Trekkies and The People vs. George Lucas are definitely worth a look for fans of these franchises. They both take a nice hard look at how people can be taken with something to the point of obsession. However, one could say that each film was made for different reasons. Trekkies was meant simply as a look at Trek fans, while The People vs. George Lucas was made because of how the fans’ relationship with the creator of their franchise has changed over the decades.

It must be noted that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry received some criticism from fans, specifically for how he insisted the Star Trek animated series that ran from 1973-1974 be ignored (and it’s still only occasionally mentioned in the annals of Trek lore), as well as the direction he took both Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the first season of The Next Generation. However, Trekkies doesn’t throw much actual criticism in Roddenberry’s direction as People does with Lucas. Perhaps this is because Roddenberry died in 1991, and some say that TNG truly took flight after that (not to mention the debut of all the subsequent Trek shows).

Since these two films were released, their respective franchises have gone in somewhat different directions. The fifth Trek series Enterprise debuted in 2001 but plummeting ratings kept it from enjoying the same seven-season run as its three predecessors, and it was canceled in 2005. At the same time, the 2002 film Star Trek: Nemesis deservedly flopped, thus bringing the big screen adventures of Picard and his crew to an end.

Seven years after that, Trek got the same reboot treatment as Batman and James Bond. The 2009 Star Trek had the original crew now played by different actors. That film was successful enough to get two sequels, Star Trek Into Darkness and Star Trek Beyond. But the passing of Anton Yelchin, who played Chekov in the reboot series, has left future reboot entries in doubt.

But a new Trek TV series Star Trek: Discovery is set to air on CBS in November. It was co-created by Alex Kurtzman, who co-wrote the first two entries in the Trek reboot series. Like Enterprise, this show takes place before the original Trek series. Here’s hoping that’s all it has in common with Enterprise.

As for Star Wars, Disney has given us a mixed bag so far. While The Force Awakens had more appealing main characters than the prequels, that didn’t change the fact that the film itself just repeated things we saw in the original film while simultaneously going the Alien 3 route of pissing all over the feeling of satisfaction the original movies left us with.

Rogue One, on the other hand, proved overall a better Star Wars prequel than the prequel trilogy. It was also a treat to see the late, great Peter Cushing (well, as close as we could get to him anyway) on the big screen again.

But Carrie Fisher’s passing soon after that film’s release has left a feeling of uncertainty about where to take the franchise next. Her scenes for the upcoming The Last Jedi were reportedly already shot before her death. But time will tell how the following entry in the sequel trilogy will go without her.

Time will also tell if Discovery or any of the many Star Wars films Disney doubtlessly has on the drawing board will do their respective franchises justice. I don’t doubt that Disney will keep squeezing cash out of Star Wars like it has with Marvel. But even if any future films are not embraced as classics, and even if Discovery doesn’t last a single season, they will, at least, remind us of the greatness of their respective original entries.